According to the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat document, Paying Attention to Literacy, K – 12, literacy involves the ability to use language and images in rich and varied forms to read, write, listen, speak, view, represent, discuss and think critically about ideas. Click here to access the Paying Attention to Literacy document.
Students with learning disabilities (LDs) often have difficulties with learning to read and to write efficiently, which can negatively influence not only the development of their literacy skills, but also their progress in all academic subjects.
Reading is the process of taking in and understanding information from written language. Much has been learned in recent years about the different components of reading, and the more we learn about how the reading process works, the more complex it appears.
Two decades of research on reading has shown that the following components are necessary in order to learn to read fluently and with understanding:
- Phonological Awareness – sensitivity to the sound structure (rather than the meaning) of speech;
- Phonemic Awareness – the ability to deal explicitly and segmentally with sound units smaller than the syllable (i.e., phonemes);
- Alphabetic Principle – the insight that written words are composed of letters of the alphabet that are related to segments of spoken words;
- Orthographic Awareness – sensitivity to the structure of the writing system (e.g. spelling patterns, orthographic rules);
- Fluency – the ability to read text quickly, accurately, and with proper expression
- Vocabulary – an understanding of the meaning and use of words; and
- Comprehension – use of strategies that help students attend to, remember and understand what they read.
Many students with reading LDs have a harder time with letter sounds than their peers and need to be explicitly taught phonological skills because their inability to identify speech sounds affects spelling, word recognition, and vocabulary development. Sometimes the term Dyslexia is used for learning disabilities which affect reading.
Students with reading LDs need to practice reading fluency, and if they do not understand the words they are reading and cannot derive meaning from context, they need to expand their vocabularies and develop a repertoire of comprehension strategies.
Students who continue to struggle with reading by junior and intermediate grades need both remedial instruction and accommodations. With access to books in electronic format students can study novels and textbooks at their language comprehension level rather than at their reading level, at the same time as they are strengthening their reading skills.
Writing involves the physical act of putting letters on paper, e.g. handwriting (or keyboarding on a computer/tablet screen), but also involves written expression – getting ideas out in an organized written format. Sometimes the term Dysgraphia is used for learning disabilities which affect writing.
Difficulties with writing can involve:
- Graphomotor functions, e.g. motor memory for the shape of letters, eye-hand coordination, effortful fine motor skills;
- Spelling and grammar;
- Language production (putting thoughts into words) and vocabulary;
- Working memory, e.g. remembering what you want to state in a sentence while thinking about how to spell a word;
- Organization and sequencing abilities; and
- Planning and prioritizing.
Writing is one of the most complex academic activities. Written expression involves juggling many things at the same time: letter formation, grammar, spelling, vocabulary, punctuation, capitalization, content, and following the directions of the teacher. All of these skills must be automatic for writing to be effective.
Many students with LDs struggle with written output and can find written assignments taxing, unrewarding and perhaps even humiliating. Sometimes it is not immediately apparent how hard they are struggling, and they may come across as being unmotivated, or display their frustration in avoidance behaviours.
Supporting students with LDs in writing and written expression involves components such as:
- Knowing which writing skill areas are affected and working on those skills;
- Teaching strategies for idea generation, organization, self-questioning, editing;
- Using accommodations to bypass the writing weaknesses so that students can produce written assignments (e.g. dictating, writing on computer with word prediction software, using voice dictation software); and
- Understanding that written work requires a lot of effort and time for these students and that they need encouragement.